The Clemson Tigers, along with the Auburn Tigers, have the most fearsome, prolific defensive front in college football, maybe in all of football, including the NFL. The quarterback competition is a battle between the veteran, battle-tested Kelly Bryant and the No.1 player in the country in 2018, according to Rivals and 247 sports, Trevor Lawrence. Talent abounds and a playoff and national championship run are likely with this ACC powerhouse.
The schedule looks challenging but navigable. Dabo Swinney is, as usual, upbeat, positive and driven. He has every reason to be all of that. Here's a look at the 2018 Clemson Tigers.
On most teams, you start with the quarterback, the most important player on the field. But with this Tigers team, the defensive line is the standout outfit. You have four potential All Americans in this group with depth behind them. Defensive end Clelin Ferrell (6'4", 265, JR.), defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence (6'4", 350, JR.), defensive tackle Christian Wilkins (6'4", 315, SR.) and defensive end Austin Bryant (6'6", 280, SR.) are a nightmare for offensive line coaches and offensive coordinators. Between them in their careers, they have 500 tackles and 50 sacks. It's phenomenal. While Clemson features a potent offense this season, their defense led by Ferrell, Lawrence, Wilkins and Bryant, could be what takes them over the top in the college football landscape. They are game changers. Last year, Ferrell had 18 tackles for loss of 80 yards and 9 1/2 sacks, Bryant posted 15 1/2 tackles for loss of 56 yards and 8 1/2 sacks. Wilkins, in the interior, had 8 1/2 TFLs and 4 1/2 sacks and Lawrence added 3 TFLs and 2 1/2 sacks also in the interior. The thing about Lawrence and Wilkins is they are so disruptive, they make it easier for Ferrell and Bryant to make the game changing tackles or sacks. All 4 of these guys could very well be first round picks in the 2019 NFL draft in Nashville, April 25-27th. Wilkins is so athletic that by the end of the spring game he was lining up at a safety spot, kind of a Minkah Fitzpatrick spot, and tackling the running back behind the line of scrimmage. These guys are extraordinary.
The players behind them are big and talented. This group is formidable. Linebacker will be led by middle backer Kendall Joseph (6'0", 235) who posted 87 tackles last season. Joseph is a graduate senior. In the defensive backfield, corners A.J. Terrell (6'2", 190) and Trayvon Mullen (6'1", 195) are studs. Mullen took an int back to the house to the tune of 84 yards in the spring game. Strong safety K'Von Wallace intercepted a pass and returned it 50 yards. Wallace is a 5'11, 210 pounder. Tanner Muse (6'1", 230) is slotted as the starting free safety. There are disrupters and game changers all over this defense and the depth is outstanding.
The offense looks potentially spectacular. The key question is which player will be the starting quarterback in game 1 versus Furman (11:20 AM CT, Sat. Sept. 1 on the ACC Network). Kelly Bryant is the returning starter and had a pretty good year last year, but had some hiccups, particularly against the Crimson Tide in the semifinals of the playoffs. Bama manhandled the Clemson offense and Bryant was totally ineffective. The 6'3", 225 pound senior is back after completing 262-of-398 passes (66%) for 2,803 yards, 13 TDs and 8 ints. So his numbers are far from elite, and early enrollee Trevor Lawrence, the Number 1 player in the country by Rivals and 247 sports, threw for 41 TDs and 1 interception as a senior Cartersville (GA) High School. His junior year, Lawrence threw for 51 TDs and 9 ints in leading Cartersville to the state championship in Class 3A. That was their second state championship in a row. Last year the team finished 11-1 after being upset in the second round of the playoffs. But Lawrence showed his ability in the Clemson spring game when he threw a perfect 50 yard touchdown strike to dynamic sophomore Tee Higgins (6'4", 210). So this competition may not be figured out until game 2 at Texas A&M, which is a massive game in which Dabo and his coaches will have to have an answer at quarterback when they kickoff at Kyle Field at 6 PM CT Saturday, Sept.8th, on ESPN. That's a spectacular matchup and one where quarterback play will be critical. So Swinney and his coaching staff will have to figure this out soon.
The running back is led, to me, by the electric Travis Etienne, a 5'10", 200 pound sophomore. Etienne ran for 781 yards and 13 TDs last season, and has world class speed and very good power. Adam Choice (5'9", 220, SR.) and Tavien Feaster (5'11", 215) are both very good options behind Etienne. Both are excellent running backs. Maybe not as prolific as Etienne, but very good players. The aforementioned Higgins will be the explosive leader on the perimeter. Higgins caught 17 passes for 345 yards and 2 TDs last year, but he went ballistic in the spring game, catching 4 passes for 112 yards and 2 TDs. He's special. Hunter Renfrow, amazingly, is back for his graduate senior year. Renfrow seems to have been on the team forever and he just keeps producing. A former walk-on, Renfrow caught 60 passes for 602 yards and 3 TDs last season. He's a force at wide receiver. Amari Rogers, a 5'10, 215 pound sophomore, is explosive as is senior Trevion Thompson (6'2", 205). There is more quality out there. This team, with good quarterback play, will be lighting up some scoreboards. The leader on the offensive line is left tackle Mitch Hyatt (6'5", 305, SR). Center Justin Falcinelli (6'4", 305, SR) is another bulldozer up front. Left guard John Simpson (6'4", 330, JR), right guard Sean Pollard (6'5", 315, JR) and right tackle Tremaine Anchrum (6'2", 310, JR) fill out the remainder of the starting offensive front. And the depth is there.
Alex Spence and Greg Huegel are competing for the kicking job, and Will Spiers, who averaged 40.6 yards per punt last year will return to punt. Renfrow and Rodgers are the punt returners and Etienne and Feaster return kickoffs.
The Tigers open with Furman, Sat. Sept. 1st at 11:20 AM on the ACC Network part of WatchESPN on the computer, then travel to A&M in a colossal matchup in week 2 (Sat. Sept. 8th at 6 PM CT ESPN). They then host Georgia Southern, Saturday, Sept. 15th on ABC, ESPN, 2 or the U, to be determined. On Sept. 22, they go to Georgia Tech, then, Sept 29th, they host Syracuse, which knocked them off on a Friday Night last season, 27-24 in the Carrier Dome. Then the Tigers are @ Wake on Oct.6th (Saturday), Off Oct. 13th, N.C. State at home Oct. 20th, @FSU on Saturday, Oct. 27th in a tremendously massive national game. Then Louisville comes to Memorial Stadium, Nov.3rd, @Boston College, Nov. 10th, another tough game as is Louisville, Duke at home Nov. 17th and the Palmetto Bowl vs South Carolina at home on Saturday, Nov.24th, part of that huge rivalry weekend over Thanksgiving. It will be the 116th meeting between the 2 teams and Will Muschamp has his best team at South Carolina, which I will discuss on Monday. Clemson holds a 69-42-4 advantage over the Gamecocks.
So, Clemson, depending on quarterback play, has a chance for an epic 2018. The defense is potentially dominating. The offense has playmakers all over the field and a physical, massive line with depth at every position on offense and defense. This looks like a playoff team right now and one that can win it all come January 7th at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, CA (7 PM ESPN).